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Delayed tree work ends up costing Pittsburgh $5,000

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Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

In 2007, a Lincoln-Lemington woman complained to the city that it needed to prune a tree, and Pittsburgh workers agreed. Four years later, the work wasn't done, and dead branches fell onto her car. Now the city is coughing up $5,000.

Pittsburgh City Council on Wednesday agreed to pay Tonya Session for the damages, but only after Department of Public Works Director Rob Kaczorowski promised an improved system for maintaining city-owned trees.

Councilman Patrick Dowd blamed Mayor Luke Ravenstahl for the backlog, but Ravenstahl spokeswoman Joanna Doven accused Dowd of political grandstanding.

“The forestry people are trying to do their job, but they're so overwhelmed they just don't have the resources,” Dowd said. “This mayor has not managed this department efficiently, and it's because he just doesn't come to work.”

Dowd produced records from Ravenstahl's 311 Response Line that show the city received more than 2,500 tree complaints since 2009. Most of them, he said, have not been resolved.

Doven said Ravenstahl is aware of the problem and last year budgeted for four more tree trimmers.

“Dowd is extremely quick to judge and makes false accusations on any particular topic, especially when the cameras are rolling,” she said.

City solicitor Daniel Regan said most tree claims are tied to root-damaged sidewalks that residents are responsible for maintaining.

An audit in May by Controller Michael Lamb showed the city paid $161,366 from 2009 to June 2011 in injury and property damage claims caused by trees. But Regan said during the past five years, the city has paid $43,000 because of falling branches or trees.

He said the city averages about 20 such claims annually.

“For an entity that is as responsible for as many trees as the city is responsible for, I think these numbers are indicative of what I would call good risk management,” Regan said.

Lamb said the main problem is that the city lacks a plan for managing its trees.

“When you talk about tree management, it's not just about sending a bunch of guys out with saws,” he said. “You've got to talk about proper tree density, specimen diversity, all that stuff enters into that.”

More than 30,000 trees with an estimated value of $52.2 million lined Pittsburgh streets and parks in 2005, according to a city forestry master plan. The list does not include trees on private property.

Since 2005, the city planted 13,000 more trees through Ravenstahl's TreeVitalize plan, according to Lisa Ceoffe, the first urban forester Ravenstahl hired for the city in 2008.

She said in an email that in addition to the forestry master plan, the city conducted an urban tree canopy study. They contain plans for managing city-owned trees, among other things.

Kaczorowski, whose department includes the Forestry Division, said each of the city's six maintenance divisions will have crews dedicated to pruning and responding to tree complaints. The city plans to purchase more equipment for the crews.

A budget has not been put together, but DPW recently bought a new bucket truck for about $176,000, Kaczorowski said.

“We'll be more efficient, and the response will be cut,” he said. “I can guarantee you that the way this plan works is going to be better than it is now.”

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or

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